The jewellery of ancient Rome has stood the test of time, with many of the designs and techniques still used today. Filigree, cameos, glass, bead work and hoop earrings are just a few of the styles modern jewellery inherits from ancient Rome. Modern designers that include Bulgari still use the techniques that made Roman jewellery beautiful and famous.
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History of Roman Jewelry Techniques
Techniques used to create ancient Roman jewellery are not all Roman in origin. Many designs and materials were inherited from the Etruscans, who used complicated designs like filigree and granulation using very basic tools. After the 1st century B.C., as the Romans grew in wealth and status, Syrian and Palestinian jewellers introduced molten glass to jewellery making techniques. They also discovered how to tint the glass by integrating metals like copper, iron and tin.
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Although more common and cheaper metals like iron and copper were frequently integrated into Roman jewellery, precious metals like gold were sought after for those in positions of power and high status. Electrum was imported from Turkey in Roman times and is an alloy of gold, platinum, silver and copper. This metal retains a silvery sheen of the platinum and silver with the warm amber glow of gold and copper. Rings were often made of a gold and copper alloy to increase strength and longevity.
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Most gemstones used to Roman jewellery were foreign imports: pearls from the Persian Gulf, amber from Gdansk, emerald and peridot from Egypt, sapphires and topaz from Sri Lanka and jasper and onyx from Persia. Local materials included gold and mother of pearl. Gemstones were popular among the Romans and were often carved into cameo designs and integrated into auspicious symbols. Coiled snakes were symbols of longevity and fish meant fertility.
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Cameos and Earrings
The gap between jewellery for the upper classes and cheaper alternatives was not only the value of the materials but the techniques that crafted them. Instead of pearl and gold, cameos were made from shell, copper and obsidian to be more economical. Additionally, the style of earrings we see today was lifted from ancient Rome. Golden earrings were made using the Etruscan techniques of filigree and granulation, at first in a simple hoop style. Later designs were longer and more ornate, sometimes reaching all the way down the neck.